06/24/2011 12:02 am ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

Tribute To Miles: A Conversation With Herbie Hancock


A Conversation with Herbie Hancock

Mike Ragogna: Herbie, you're doing the European jazz festival circuit this year paying tribute to Miles Davis, right?

Herbie Hancock: Yes, we're playing the Montreaux Jazz Festival, the North Sea Jazz Festival, and several others.

MR: And you're mainly going to be doing this with your pals, Wayne Shorter and Marcus Miller?

HH: Right, exactly. Actually, it's Marcus' project--it was his idea to do this--and he got Wayne and myself to agree to doing this. When we all worked with Miles Davis, we were young people that he nurtured, and that he sought out to be in his band. We thought we'd do the same thing because we're not the youngest guys in the band anymore. (laughs) So, we decided that we would get a young trumpet player and a young drummer. It turns out both of them are named Sean. There's Sean Jones, the trumpeter, and Sean Rickman is the drummer.

MR: That's great that you're carrying on that tradition, just as Miles brought you guys on as young musicians. This is an interesting project that you're doing because you're going to be covering each of his significant phases. How are you guys going to approach that?

HH: Well, I can tell you sort of philosophically what we're doing in order to attempt to live up to what Miles stood for. We decided to not just have this be a typical tribute tour, where you play the old songs in the old way, and just play songs that Miles was known for. If we did that, we really wouldn't be living up to Miles' expectations because he was never about trying to do anything other than be in the moment, and this moment is '11. This is the 21st century, and Miles passed away at the end of the 20th century in '91. So, for certain parts, we'll play some songs that Miles was known for, but without trying to recreate Miles' sound because he would roll over in his grave if we did that, you know? We're going to attempt to create our own fresh approach to those songs.

MR: In the same improvisational spirit as you guys had at the time, right?

HH: Exactly. That way, we can really pay tribute to Miles.

MR: Do you have any idea which songs you'll be doing at this point?

HH: No, not at all. I would think one of the songs might be "Tutu," which Marcus actually wrote for Miles.

MR: Herbie, you debuted with Donald Byrd, another trumpeter, and then you moved on to join Miles' quartet in '63 with Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Wayne. Can you tell me the story of how you progressed from one group to the other?

HH: What happened was, it was Donald Byrd that really discovered me in Chicago. He hired me to play for a weekend in Milwaukee. There was a big storm that particular night, and Donald Byrd came through Chicago and was going to drive from Chicago to Milwaukee, Wisconsin--it's really not that far, like a two-hour drive or something like that. Anyway, Donald's, pianist had gotten stranded somewhere, and so he needed somebody for the weekend--it was a ten day engagement. Well, Donald went to a club and asked the owner who he could get for just one weekend. I winded up getting the gig for that weekend, and Donald and the band really responded to my playing so much that they decided to fire the other piano player and hire me. So, that's how I got with Donald Byrd. I was twenty years old at the time, and Donald kind of took me under his wing. He and I shared an apartment, and I was kind of like his younger brother. He really watched out for me, nurtured me, and helped me develop. I worked on and off with him for a couple of years, and in the meantime, I got my own record contract, which Donald was responsible for me getting, and I did a lot of side dates with a lot of people. I got known in New York, where I had moved to when I joined Donald and his band. In the meantime, I wrote "Watermelon Man" for my first record.

MR: What a classic.

HH: It did pretty well. It still kind of hangs on. (laughs) I kept hearing these rumors that Miles was looking for me, and I knew that Miles was in a transition--he had moved from the band he had Wynton Kelly, and John Coltrane was already on his own. So, I heard this rumor that Miles was looking for me, and I didn't believe a word of it, right? One day, Donald said to me, "Look, when Miles calls, tell him you're not working with anybody." I said, "Donald, first of all, Miles isn't going to call. Secondly, I wouldn't do that to you. All the stuff that you've done for me, I wouldn't disrespect you in that way." Then, Donald said, "Listen, if I stood in the way of your having the great opportunity to work with Miles Davis, I couldn't look myself in the mirror. You take that opportunity."

Within a matter of days, that phone rang--it might have been the next day--and it was Miles. The first thing that Miles said was, "You working with anybody?" I said, "No." He told me he wanted me to come to his house tomorrow at 1:30, "click." I didn't know where he lived--I sort of knew, but I didn't really know. A half hour later, Tony Williams called me and said, "Did Miles call you?" I said, "Yeah," and he said, "He called me too!" He had Miles' address, so we showed up the next day at his house and we went to his recreation room where Ron Carter was, and at the time, Ron Coleman was playing sax with Miles. So, we were there for three days playing in Miles' basement without Miles. He played a few notes that first day, and then we didn't see him the rest of the day, but he kept telling us to come over then next day.

MR: Didn't the topic of "Where's Miles" come up?

HH: Well, yeah. Ron Carter kind of took over and played some songs.

MR: I imagine that you guys were having such a good time that it was like, "Okay, when Miles gets here, he gets here."

HH: Yeah, that's right. We weren't going to question Miles--we were just happy to be there. Finally, on the third day, he came downstairs and played a couple more notes. He said, "Okay, tomorrow, we're going to meet over at Columbia Recording Studios on 7th Avenue." I was dumbfounded, so I said, "Miles, does that mean I'm in the band?" Miles looked at me with a little bit of a smirk and said, "You're making the record." And there was another expletive that he used. (laughs) We went to the studio the next day and began recording the album Seven Steps To Heaven.

MR: Since you've been with Miles during different periods, what is your favorite period of Miles' music?

HH: Uh, each moment?

MR: (laughs)

HH: You can't separate them that way. We were always in the moment, and Miles always challenged us to be in the moment. We never knew what we were going to record. Miles would ask us to bring songs, but we would create the arrangements right there in the studio, and little by little, from making the records and touring, we kind of developed our own direction. It was a much more open direction than when we first joined Miles' band.

MR: When you were looking at your musical growth, I imagine you were making huge leaps and bounds of progress. Were you noticing that as it was happening?

HH: No, you can't be aware of it anymore than you can be aware that your hair is growing.

MR: How about that moment when you're on stage or in the studio, and all of a sudden, you're playing this stuff and it's like, "Oh wow, where did that come from?"

HH: Well, of course, those were the best moments, when something really special would emerge. But jazz is like that anyway. You go on a tour, and there would be certain days when you really somehow connect with yourself and with the audience. There is a magic that happens in those moments, and that's the great joy of playing jazz--it's the great joy of playing music when that happens. I think it happens in jazz even more so because it's so improvisatory, and you are creating something different moment to moment.

MR: Does it also have to do with your connection to the people you're playing with?

HH: Absolutely. That band was a really high level band--cream of the crop. So, we couldn't help but grow and evolve, and we were constantly evolving. We were aware that we were going to these different levels, and it seemed to happen every few months--we'd be onto another level. We were aware of that, but as far as comparing it to anybody but ourselves, we didn't do that. We only compared it to ourselves in the sense of what we were doing with that band.

MR: Yeah, that's what I was imagining. At some point, the evolution has to be too intense to ignore.

HH: Well, because it was a team effort, I felt it more as part of the team, rather than as an individual. What I got from the rest of the band was the challenge to find the courage to reach further into the unknown.

MR: Nice.

HH: That's what I got. The unknown territory is vast and immeasurable. So, it was the influence, support, and encouragement of the other members of the band that challenged me to find new solutions to these songs, even though we were playing many of the same songs every night. Each time, we were trying to find a new solution, and that process always was the source of growth.

MR: Did you find yourself identifying more with any particular member? Were there any members that you felt like you understood what they were doing so well that it made your choices for you?

HH: Actually, Tony Williams was 17 when he joined Miles--I was 23--so, he was really a kid--but the way he played was unlike any other drummer I had ever heard. Yes, he had been influenced by other drummers as part of his development, but by the time he was 17, he was really his own man, and it was the beginning of him being his own man. That became a seed for further development, but he was already playing a totally unique style. One of the things that distinguished him from other drummers was his use of a variety of different kinds of phrases that were in different time signatures. Rhythmically, what he played was so different from other drummers, and the devices he used were so different.

I was totally intrigued by that, and what I wanted to do was find a way to do that on the piano. So, Tony and I really became partners in crime, in a way, and he was a big influence on me, primarily rhythmically. Miles influenced me kind of overall, but because of Miles' vision, there were key components of my own development that Miles played a part in nurturing. Tony was my buddy, and he and I used to hang out a lot, and I would ask him a lot of questions about what he was doing. What I would get from Miles wasn't so much through asking Miles questions, but was through Miles' behavior as a musician--not necessarily his behavior outside of the music, but even some of that. He showed a lot of courage when courage was needed. When other people would cower, Miles would stand up.

MR: When you were playing with Tony, it seems you took what you developed with Tony musically to your solo albums.

HH: What I focused on with Tony was the colors that he made with the drums. He had his own way of playing, but it just expanded the pallet of colors that I had been hearing from other drummers, and Tony went way beyond that.

MR: Which are your favorite Miles albums with or without you participating?

HH: Well, one of my favorite albums of all time is Miles' Miles Ahead. It was Miles + 19, which was with Gil Evans and a band of 19 musicians--brass and woodwind instruments--backing up Miles. When that record came out, I had never heard anything even close to that in my entire life. It was like something that I had in my heart, but I never knew it until I heard that record.

MR: Some people have that experience with Sketches Of Spain. That Gil Evans stuff is just phenomenal, huh.

HH: It's phenomenal. I heard elements of classical music and I started off as a classical pianist. So, I heard elements of that in the orchestral writing, and in modern jazz, mixed together in a seamless way. It was just an expansion of where jazz was at that moment, and that record was done in '59. I remember that the first time I heard that record, I cried all the way through it. (laughs) It was so beautiful. I kept playing it. I'd play the first side, then flip it over to play the second side. When it would finish, I'd flip it over and play the first side again, and then I'd play the second side--I must have played it five times--and I was drenched in tears because it was so beautiful.

MR: When I interviewed you last time, I asked if you missed Miles. This time out, let me ask you what you think Miles' main legacy is. What do you think is the main thing that he left behind?

HH: The people--the people that worked with him. His influence on those people is his legacy, and I'm one of those people.

MR: Beautiful answer.

HH: He was the best teacher in the world because he encouraged us to find the answers by ourselves. That's why he never told us, specifically, what to play. It would always be some type of suggestion that would leave you hunting for what he meant. So, you'd wind up finding a solution that was your response to that. So, each time, it was a quest.

MR: Is it possible you guys are going to record a little bit of what you're doing on the road, so maybe there's a project in the future?

HH: We didn't get that far but that very well could be.

MR: It's just that it's so tempting to want to hear what you're doing for those who aren't going to be able to make the European tour. Are you going to take it to the States too?

HH: Right now, all the dates are in Europe. I haven't heard anything further.

MR: Okay, well I'm planting a bug. That's all.

HH: (laughs)

MR: It would be great to hear what you guys did.

HH: When I first joined Miles, George Coleman was playing sax and then Wayne came in. Wayne added a quality of creativity, mystery and questions that were so compatible with Miles and what he was doing. A lot of what we did was provocative--it would leave questions in the air. So, Wayne developed into, for me, the person that I look up to the most in music today. I mean, he is brilliant. He's a master genius composer and saxophonist--there is nobody like Wayne Shorter. He's my Miles Davis right now, in a way, even though we're contemporaries. Wayne is older than I am, but we're both in our '70s. I hang on Wayne's words, thoughts, and music the way jazz musicians did when Thelonious Monk was around.

MR: Interesting. I remember when I was working with Joni Mitchell, she would talk about Wayne, and her eyes would light up like she was talking about Jesus or something. She's another huge fan of Wayne. There is something about him--there's a real magic.

HH: Let me tell you something. One of the greatest experiences I ever had was listening to a conversation with Joni Mitchell and Wayne Shorter. Just to hear them talking, my mouth was open. They understand each other perfectly, and they make these leaps and jumps because they don't have to explain anything. (laughs)

MR: Yeah, like an unspoken thing, pure feeling.

HH: Unbelievable. They both speak in these metaphors that are just incredible.

MR: Joni told me she would say something like, "Wayne, can you play something a little more yellow?" or whatever, and then he would just go, "Okay," and he would play exactly what she wanted.

HH: Exactly. They are definitely on the same wavelength.

MR: When we spoke last, we were talking about The Imagine Project. When it comes to albums, you don't do the same thing twice, that's highly admirable.

HH: I made that vow, to always try to find a new vantage point when I make a record--one that I haven't explored before, and one that I haven't heard anybody else explore before. I believe that not only am I capable of that, I believe that everybody is capable of that. So, it's a standard that I make for myself, to encourage other people to do that.

MR: Do you think other people give up on that a little too soon?

HH: Many times they don't even think that way. They actually shortchange themselves, and they don't' realize that they are capable of doing that. I get tremendous encouragement for that, and incredible inspiration from practicing Buddhism too, which I've been doing for almost forty years now. That's one of the things we talk about in Buddhism--the ability for the human being to express himself in an infinite number of ways.

MR: It seems like that's where growth comes from. If you get out of your habits, it seems like that's the only potential for growth.

HH: Right, absolutely, and Miles encouraged that. He would always say things like, "I pay you to practice on the bandstand," and he would say things about getting out of the comfort zone. That's what we talked about back in the day, and that's one of the reasons that I first started practicing Buddhism, the musical reason--it was very much compatible with my training with Miles and others. Of course, that was the tip of the iceberg. Music is not the only reason that I practice Buddhism anymore because it has affected my whole life. As a matter of fact, the way I view myself is different now than it was for the vast majority of my life. I don't view myself as a musician anymore--I view myself as a human being that functions as a musician when I'm functioning as a musician, but that's not 24 hours a day. That's really opened me up to even more perspectives because now I look at music, not from the standpoint of being a musician, but from the standpoint of being a human being.

MR: I get that, totally. When you think of it as a form of communication, what you've done is evolved your particular form because it's growing at the same level as your spirituality and being a human.

HH: Exactly. Buddhism has turned me on to my humanness, and is challenging my humanness so that I can become more human. What I'm talking about is the best of what the human spirit has to offer. So, we're talking about things like courage, wisdom, compassion, and those kinds of things.

MR: Higher purpose and higher senses.

HH: Exactly.

MR: I know I've asked you this question before, but I'm going to ask it again because it's always a lovely answer. My question to you is, what advice do you have for new artists, right now?

HH: This is a transitional stage in the music business--the whole business of music, with record labels, intellectual properties and so forth. So, what I might have told musicians 15 years ago is different from what I tell them now. Now, we have the great opportunity to continue to own our intellectual property. Fifteen years ago, I might have said, "Try to get on a major record label," but I don't easily give out that advice anymore--sometimes, that's not the best solution. I encourage young musicians to also study business and get some sense of what business is about because the musicians of today and the near future will be businessmen themselves and are being businessmen themselves. Prince is a perfect example. He's come up with amazing solutions for his own career that the labels, in some cases, are trying to catch up to--what Radiohead is doing, and many others. So, it's a brand new day, as far as the music business is concerned, and there are ways to put out your records yourself, cheaply.

I can freely give the advice play the music that's in your heart. You don't have to sell out to anybody because you can own that. Play what you believe in and develop that, and if a major label doesn't pick up on it, that's not going to be your problem. You go on the internet and you can find companies that work only with independent artists or primarily with independent artists. The best advice I can give to a musician is to continue to follow your heart, to be open, be not just a musician, but a human being, and develop your character, so that that emerges as part of the story you're trying to tell with your music.

MR: And that's what you do to this day?

HH: That's my goal. That, and to continually be a student of music, and a student of life until the day I die--and beyond. (laughs)

MR: (laughs) And beyond. Herbie, do you have one last thing you'd like to say about Miles?

HH: I remember--you kind of eluded to it during this conversation--you've asked me if I miss Miles. I said that I don't because there is a lot of Miles that is in me--his influence is in me and in many of the musicians that have worked with him, who I really connect and respond to, like Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Dave Holland, for example. Pat Metheny may not have worked with Miles, but he was influenced by Miles. John McLaughlin was influenced by Miles. There are so many people that I've had a great opportunity to work with and observe, many of whom are my peers, that I really respond to their music. There are also a lot of young musicians who have worked with some of those people, who are now creating their own directions in music--Danilo Perez, for one, who works with Wayne Shorter's band--but also has his own records, and they're really gorgeous records. Aaron Parks, who worked with Terence Blanchard--Terence was influenced by Miles--is an example of an amazingly creative pianist, and I admire what he's doing and respond to that.

MR: In a sense, yeah, I guess it's pretty hard to miss Miles with this kind of legacy. Herbie, you're in an incredible graduation class, I have to say.

HH: (laughs) Miles covered a lot of territory, so I feel his presence--a living presence--in the music of the people he has influenced.

MR: That's a beautiful legacy he's left. He changed jazz, as you all did as his--if you care to say it--disciples. Miles may be the godfather of all of this, but I think everyone has been influenced by not only Miles, but also by what all of you have created as well.

HH: I try to do my best, and I try to live up to, again, what a human being is capable of--that's my goal.

MR: Beautiful. Herbie, I really appreciate your time so much, your interviews are always heartfelt and enlightening. Thanks again.

HH: Thank you very much.

Transcribed by Ryan Gaffney